Notes on a Pseudo-Scandal

OK folks, if you have the patience for some meta-blogging on the subject of Benghazi, let me share with you some of the thoughts that have been running around my head as I struggle with how to talk about this story. Whenever a topic like this comes up, you have to ask yourself a couple of questions. Do I have something worthwhile to contribute to this discussion? Is there something that needs to be said but hasn't been yet? Is this thing even worth talking about? Much as I'd like to be immune to the consideration of whether I'm doing a favor for those pushing the story for their own partisan ends by keeping the discussion going, it's hard to avoid that question popping into your head from time to time.

There's an objective reality out there, hard though it may sometimes be to discern—either there was or was not actual wrongdoing, and the whole matter is either trivial or momentous—but everyone's perception of that reality is formed within the context of a partisan competition. Irrespective of any facts, Democrats would like this story to just go away, and Republicans would like it to become The Worst Scandal In History. I'll be honest and say it's hard to avoid thinking about that when you're writing about it. Even doing something like refuting the latest crazy thing someone on the right is alleging does, to at least a small degree, help maintain the story's momentum.

Are the Koch Brothers Getting in the Newspaper Business?

David Koch, possible future newspaper mogul. (AP photo/Carlo Allegri)

If you ask ten conservatives what they think of the New York Times, seven or eight of them would probably tell you that it's an organization whose primary purpose is advancing a sinister liberal agenda, and journalism just happens to be the tool it uses to accomplish that goal, though they'd be more likely to call it propaganda than journalism. The rest of us think that's nuts, but those conservatives sincerely believe it. So it's not surprising that some of them would dream of creating a conservative version of what they imagine the liberal media to be. Sure, they've got Fox News, and they control most of talk radio, and they have their magazines and web sites. But wouldn't it be something to have some real old-fashioned newspapers to advance the cause? And not just ones that are ridiculed like the Washington Times, but papers that already have respected names and large audiences?

Sounds like an interesting idea, which is why Charles and David Koch—who, depending on your perspective, are admirable and civic-minded businessmen committed to economic freedom, or dangerous plutocrats committed to bespoiling the Earth and enhancing their own wealth and that of their class at the expense of the rest of us—are considering buying a group of newspapers from the troubled Tribune company, including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel, and the Hartford Courant. So what are the implications of the Kochs getting so heavily into the newspaper business?

Pete Williams Is a Good Journalist, But He's Not a Hero

At one point during its coverage of the events in Boston on Friday, NBC News brought in a feed from a local station, and it seemed to be recording not the station's broadcast but someone talking on the phone, perhaps a reporter or someone in the control room. "Oh, you're not listening?" the person being recorded said to whomever he was talking to. "We don't know shit." After a pregnant pause, Brian Williams returned to say smoothly, "Well, that was a fortuitous time to dip into the coverage of New England cable news." But it was a pretty fair summary of television news' overall performance through the course of this whole drama.

There was one part of NBC's coverage, however, that came in for a great deal of praise. At a time when the New York Post was publishing one piece of false information after another (including splashing a photo of two completely innocent men on its front page and accusing them of being suspects) and CNN was coming in for much-deserved ridicule for its hours of pointless, ill-informed blathering, everyone seemed to agree that NBC's national security reporter Pete Williams was a hero. As Politico reported, "Inside the studios of NBC, Williams is being widely referred to as a hero." "Pete Williams Becomes the Reporting Hero of the Boston Bombings," said the Huffington Post. "NBC's Pete Wililams: Media Hero of the Boston Bombing Coverage," said the Atlantic Wire. Other outlets didn't use the "hero" word but still rushed out laudatory stories about Williams.

So what exactly did he do to deserve the title of "hero"?

Is the Single-Issue Gun Voter Another Myth?

Over the last year or so, I've written at more length than most readers can probably tolerate about the myth of the gun lobby's power. But there's one part of that myth that I haven't addressed too much, and it comes up today as the Manchin Toomey background check proposal is being voted on in the Senate (as of this writing it looks like it will be unable to overcome a Republican filibuster). This part of the myth isn't completely false, it's just dramatically overstated. As you've probably heard, one of the reasons the gun lobby is successful is that gun owners are "single-issue" voters who not only won't consider voting for anyone who isn't right on guns, they're highly energized, writing and calling their representatives all the time, while the other side is passive and disengaged, not bothering to get involved on the gun issue. That means that representatives feel intense pressure from the right and no pressure from the left, making it all the more likely that any measure to stem the proliferation of guns will fail.

Sounds like a true story, but is it?

Boston, Through a Crisis Darkly

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Tucked in the hipster haven of Jamaica Plain on the southern side of this brash yet neighborly city, my apartment is just a few miles from the heart of Boston. As a beat reporter who covers local politics and mayhem, it's a convenient place to live. A typical morning commute to report at City Hall or the State House takes about 15 minutes on the Orange Line, or a bit longer by bus. But even though the trains are running on time today, it takes me longer than usual to get downtown. I just can't help but stop every couple of feet to note how drastically the Hub changed since two bombs went off near Copley Square, killing three people and injuring nearly 200 others. I'm accustomed to covering craziness—from police brutality to Occupy, I've been front-and-center, if not fully embedded—but today, this landscape is a wholly unfamiliar beast.

Call It What You Will

President Obama speaking about the bombing in Boston.

Conservatives sometimes complain about the "language police" on the left who keep them from using the colorful words and phrases they learned at their pappys' knees, when those words and phrases turn out to be offensive to people. But the truth is that nobody pays the kind of careful attention to language the right does. They're forever telling us that the truth of President Obama's radicalism can be found not in his actions but in a thing he said one time, or on the other hand, criticizing him for something he failed to say. (For some reason, Rudy Giuliani was particularly obsessed with this. He loved to say about a speech an opponent made, "He never said the words 'islamo-fascist terror killers!' How can we trust that he understands the world's dangers if he won't say that???") It's a faith in the power of words to change the world and reveal the truth that I'm sure linguists find touching.

From what I can tell, conservatives were getting only mildly pre-angry at Obama for not calling the bombing in Boston "terrorism" (see here, for instance). Needless to say, this is a kabuki of feigned outrage we've been through before, and not that long ago. You'll recall that there was a big to-do over whether Obama had called the Benghazi attack "terrorism," with Republicans insisting that if he had used the word earlier and more often...well, something would have been different. They're not sure what, but it would have involved us standing tall and not taking any guff.

The Trouble with Scoops

Flickr/Aaron Tang

It seems that every time there's a dramatic breaking story like yesterday's bombing in Boston, media organizations end up passing on unconfirmed information that turns out to be false. This happens, of course, because in a chaotic situation where many people are involved in some way and the causes and results of some event are not initially clear, it can be hard to separate actual facts from what somebody thought or heard or believed. News organizations trying to cover it have an incredibly difficult job to do, and we should acknowledge the ones who do it well, even heroically, in the face of those challenges. For instance, the Boston Globe will deserve all the accolades and awards they get for their coverage of this event. And yet, the news media seem to get so much wrong when something like this happens. Why?

I'd argue that the reason is that in the frenzy of this kind of happening, they fail to realize something important: Scoops are beside the point. When Americans are looking to learn about and understand this kind of horrible event, they really don't care whether you got a scoop. They want to understand what actually happened. I don't think the news organizations, particularly the TV networks, understand this at all.

The Gosnell Case and the Two Kinds of Media Criticism

Fox is on it.

As you might have heard, conservatives are up in arms that the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor charged with multiple murder counts, hasn't gotten more coverage. They claim that the media have ignored the story because of their pro-choice bias. You should read Scott Lemieux's five lessons of the case, but a lot of liberals have been shaking their heads over conservatives' complaints, because the right's argument about the case is wrong in almost every one of its particulars. The truth is that though there hasn't been a lot of coverage in the mainstream media until now, many feminist writers have written about the case at length. And what allowed this horror to happen is exactly what conservatives want more of: a system where there are few (or no) legitimate abortion providers, sending poor women with few options to the back alleys, where they can be preyed upon by people like Gosnell.

But I want to talk about the media angle to all this. As Kevin Drum points out, there have essentially been two phases in the conservative media's attention to this story. In phase 1, they ignored it. In phase 2, they write stories complaining that because of liberal bias, the media are ignoring it. What's missing, of course, actual coverage of the story itself, despite the fact that conservatives have all these media outlets that could be doing what they claim the mainstream media aren't. The Washington Times, for instance, ran one AP story about the start of the trial, followed by 7 separate pieces on how the media are ignoring the story. Did it send its own reporters there to cover it? Nah, why bother? They do, however, have an online poll in which you can answer this vital question: "Online outrage is forcing some media outlets to cover the Kermit Gosnell abortion trial. Will MSNBC be able to continue its blackout?"

There are essentially two kinds of media criticism you'll see if you pay attention to these things. The first is an analysis that has some specificity to it, and aims to address some genuine ongoing weakness of press coverage. The second is just about browbeating and getting people you don't like on the defensive. It's the difference between "Let's see if we can get a discussion started about this problem and make some progress toward fixing it," and "Here's our chance to get those bastards on their heels." The left does both. The right only does the latter.

Mr. Brooks’s Planet

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Since New York Times columnist David Brooks is the very model of the sentient conservative, his acknowledgements of social reality are often more than just personal—they signal that a particular state of affairs has become incontestable to all but the epistemically shuttered.

Rand Paul Is a Genius

Flickr/Gage Skidmore

When your party is in power, the lines of authority are very clear. The White House is in charge, and though a certain amount of freelancing is always possible, the media's attention tends to be focused on those at the top. They'll always seek out the White House first as the party's voice, and after that the congressional leadership. But when you're out of power, there's more room for political entrepreneurs to get attention for themselves. Lots of them try—every day in Washington there are a zillion poorly-attended press conferences—but you have to be clever to break through that clutter and get yourself on the evening news.

When he first got elected two years ago, Rand Paul wasn't exactly known as the sharpest tool in the shed. An opthamologist with no prior political experience, he seemed to get elected to the Senate almost entirely through a combination of blind luck and because his father is a famous crank. A kind of selective libertarian (he's opposed to most government regulation of the economy, for instance, but doesn't want drug legalization like many actual libertarians), he distinguished himself mostly by displaying a remarkably superficial knowledge of policy and saying that restaurant owners ought to be able to refuse to serve black people if they want, a practice outlawed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act (and yes, now he says he always supported it, but he didn't — you can read an explanation here).

But in the last couple of months, Rand Paul may have gotten more news coverage than any other Republican in America, always including mention of the fact that he's thinking of running for president in 2016. How did he do it?

Thinking Outside the (X)Box

There was soul-searching to spare at the Game Developers Conference, as attendees had some warranted stress over diversity—but they should be sure to remember to work on improving the world outside the industry too.

Flickr/Official GDC

Brian Taylor

Why Are Lists So Irresistible?


Yesterday I gave a talk at my grad school alma mater, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, about what journalists and scholars can teach each other. Interestingly enough, the academics in attendance all nodded their heads when I went on a little rant about how awful most academic writing is, and made the case that just because it has always been that way it doesn't have to continue to be that way. (Though when I quoted Elaine Benes—"People love interesting writing!"—the students looked at me blankly, obviously having no idea whom I was referring to. Kids today.) The abysmal quality of academic prose is something that every grad student complains about and every professor acknowledges, but nobody seems to have the gumption to do anything about.

That's a topic I'll return to later, but in discussing the current state of the media, I described how the most-read piece on The American Prospect's web site in 2012 was "My So-Called Ex-Gay Life,", Gabriel Arana's extraordinary story about the ex-gay movement and his own youthful experience with conversion therapy. The article was not only well-reported and beautifully written, but genuinely newsworthy; it included an interview with Dr. Robert Spitzer, one of the prime movers in the propagation of conversion therapy, in which Spitzer essentially recanted his entire career and apologized. That was our top article of the year, and deservedly so. And what was the second most-read article of the year? "Ten Arguments Gun Advocates Make, and Why They're Wrong," a listicle I wrote on the day of the Newtown shooting. I don't know exactly how long Gabe took to report and write his piece, but I imagine it was weeks. I splurted out that listicle in about an hour and a half.

So what's the lesson here? Lists are magic.

Sunday Shows Continue Long Tradition of Suckage

Oo, fascinating!

The Sunday political talk shows—your "Meet the Press," your "This Week," your "Face the Nation"—embody just about everything that's wrong with American politics, with Washington, D.C, and with the media. Every Sunday, you can flip between them and watch one party hack or another mindlessly deliver talking points, then watch the host try fruitlessly to trap said hack in some piece of hypocritical position-switching, then watch a bunch of "party strategists" bicker through the delivery of more talking points. I can understand why people who aren't interested in politics would find them unbearable, but even I can't stand them, and I'm someone who listens to C-SPAN radio in the car. (If you're interested in the depths of my disgust, you can read more here).

But there's no doubt they play an important role in Washington's political life, through the twin powers of agenda-setting and status conferral. The topics discussed on the Sunday shows are considered important topics, and the people who appear are considered important people. Back when George W. Bush was president, I worked at Media Matters for America, and during that time we started counting the guests on the Sunday shows to see what kind of ideological, gender, and racial diversity there was on these most prestigious of talk shows. When we released our first report on it—showing, among other things, that Republicans dramatically outnumbered Democrats, and conservatives outnumbered liberals—the producers of the shows responded by saying, "Well, that's because the Republicans are in power, so they're the newsmakers. If Democrats take control, then we'll be interviewing them more often."

So everything changed once Obama got elected, right? Nope.

"Jackass" Goes Geopolitical

Vice's foray into doumentary film may make you shake your head, but you can't deny it's good television.

Vice Productions

Vice Productions